Art imitates life in animated film ‘The Boxtrolls’

Monstrosity comes in all forms. Or so we learn from Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s existential animated 3D stop-motion picture, “The Boxtrolls.”

Based on Alan Snow’s children’s book trilogy, “Here Be Monsters!”, the 96-minute Laika Entertainment film (the production company responsible for “ParaNorman” and “Coraline”) is a steampunk adventure that explores the meaning of humanity. As the film begins, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kinsley) leads a couple of henchmen through the hilly and windy cobblestone streets of Cheesebridge. Their mission: the virtuous deed of capturing and killing these vile nocturnal Gollum-sized creatures fabled to eat human children; these villainous fiends are called boxtrolls.

According to Snatcher, boxtroll extermination is a noble occupation and his key into the privileged cheese-eating royal ruling guild of white hats Lord Portley-Rinds (Jared Harris), Sir Langsdale (Maurice LaMarche), Sir Broderick (James Urbaniak) and Boulanger (Brian George).

His henchmen follow willingly enough, but don’t share Snatcher’s conviction.

“Do you think boxtrolls understand the duality of good and evil?” asks henchman Mr. Pickles (voiced by Richard Ayoade).

“They must,” answers Mr. Trout (Nick Frost). “Or else why would they hide from us? We are the good guys.”

Except good and evil aren’t clearly defined in Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s script. While Snatcher shares “Despicable Me’s” Gru’s portly form, his attitude resembles Robert Helpmann’s child catcher from the 1968 classic “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Meanwhile, the boxtrolls are small and childlike, fascinated by round items likes gears and clocks. They talk in an adorable nonsensical babble. And call each other by the labels on the boxes in which they hide in.

Naturally, we fall in love with them. With their oblong heads and glow-in-the-dark yellow eyes, they resemble other animated cuties like “Despicable Me’s” minions.

Their underground lair is the rich and intricate treasure troves in “Wall-E.” Their most precious item: a baby boy (voiced by Isaac Hemstead Wright of “Game of Thrones” fame) fascinated by the lullabies from broken wind-up toys and old Italian barbershop quartet records (composed by Dario Marianelli). The boxtrolls call him Eggs. Fish (Dee Bradley Baker) becomes Eggs’ best friend and parental figure. The animation team, comprised of almost 30 members, create a charming montage into the boxtroll’s wondrous world.

But that world dwindles with each of Snatcher’s triumphs.

Like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” conquers tough issues. Brignull and Pava’s screenplay deals with loss as skillfully as J.K. Rowling did when she penned the scene where Sirius Black fell through the veil in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

“Why do we do this, Shoe?” asks Eggs as his boxtroll friends slowly disappear under Snatcher’s reign. “Carry on like everything’s normal?”

The answer, of course, is to live, but what is a life in hiding?

As difficult and grotesque as some of these lessons are, Annable and Stacchi’s film shows that art imitates real life and real life is ugly. Be sure to stick around for the credits, though, as the animators pull back the curtain and reveal the great wizard of Oz himself.

“The Boxtrolls” was directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based on Alan Snow’s novel, “Here Be Monsters!” 

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Animated short ‘Silent’ chronicles films of the ages

Limbert Fabian and Brandon Oldenburg of Moonbot Studios — who brought you the Academy Award-winning short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” (2011) and Chipotle’s ” The Scarecrow” (2013)  — are at it again.

Their 2014 animated short, “Silent,” is to motion pictures as “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” is to books. It even features the familiar Morris Lessmore from the latter film.

This silent two-and-a-half minute love letter to cinema centers on two street performers who get caught in the rain.

They run into an empty run-down theater for shelter and as if by magic — Mr. Lessmore tumbles into a silent picture.

In order to show the evolution of cinema, Fabian and Oldenburg’s short animates iconic scenes from movies: the black-and-white action sequence of Godzilla on the Golden Gate Bridge; the hand-drawn animation of Disney’s “Zip-a-Pa-Dee-Doo-Dah”; the zombies from the stop-motion picture “ParaNorman”;  the ship from “The Pirates! Band of Misfits!”; and the “Inception-esque” free fall off of a skyscraper and into an “Alice In Wonderland-esque” rabbit hole.

Written by William Joyce, Fabian and Oldenburg and dedicated to the art and science of storytelling, “Silent” shows us how easy it is to escape into another world — if only for a moment.

“Silent” was directed by Limbert Fabian and Brandon Oldenburg; produced by Moonbot Studios; and distributed by Dolby Laboratories.

‘World War Z’: prouder, stronger, better?

It begins like one of President Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” ads — an idyllic house featuring the nuclear family: Dad’s flipping pancakes, Mom’s helping out with math homework, the girls are begging for a puppy — everyday ordinary scenes edited over swelling music. You know, it’s morning again in America.

But unlike Reagan’s presidential ad, the TV montage and narration in “World War Z” are ones of increasing urgency: dolphins stranded, travel restrictions, rabies in Taiwan, CO2 rising, the looting of grocery stores, trucks bulldozing cars like they’re Matchbox toys, people jumping off roofs of skyscrapers and martial law.

These frightening scenes of chaos prove that the world’s neither prouder, stronger nor better. But rather, it shows an apocalyptic turmoil that’s becoming as routine as — say pancakes for breakfast.

While a zombie apocalypse may sound as far-fetched as martians landing on Earth, Marc Forster’s “World War Z” contains a sense of realism that makes a zombie infestation look plausible (or at least sound as realistic as Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio drama).

The everyman in this story is Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a retired UN employee who reluctantly travels to find patient zero after a zombie virus spreads worldwide. In exchange for his service, his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and daughters, Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins), are promised refuge.

Forster’s zombie movie, based on a novel by Max Brooks (author of “War World Z” and “The Zombie Survival Guide”), differs from zombie movies of the past. Unlike “28 Days Later” where Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital bed alone or “I Am Legend” where Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last man on earth, “World War Z” opens with a father and his wife and kids. Gerry Lane is never alone while raiding abandoned supermarkets or hunting deer. He has his wife and girls in tow. And when he doesn’t — only because his UN mission requires it — he’s with soldiers and scientists who have guns guarding his back.

But that’s not the only thing that separates “World War Z.” Forster’s film deals with the zombie epidemic on a much more modern and global scale. Sure, “Shaun of the Dead” — the 2004 British zom-com featuring a bloke named Shaun (Simon Pegg) trying to survive a zombie apocalypse — is good and fun and all, but the action is mostly isolated to traveling to and from a pub. And Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead” centers around a shopping mall. There’s no such thing as isolated pubs or shopping malls anymore — not with globalization.

“World War Z” takes the viewer from the city traffic in Philadelphia to a Naval ship off the coast of New York City to a military base in South Korea, a mecca in Jerusalem and a World Health Organization research facility in Wales. You know that 400-mile wall separating Israel from Palestine? That, it turns out, is the world’s greatest zombie blockade. So you’re saying that an infectious virus would solve the more than 60-year conflict between the Israelites and the Palestinians? Well, that’s one way to achieve world peace… And oh look, it’s morning again in America.

“World War Z” was directed by Marc Forster and written by Damon Lindelof, Drew Goddard, Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, based on the novel by Max Brooks. 

The undead never die: a sample of recent zombie flicks

‘ParaNorman’ animation provides horror, comedy and brains

“Brains,” the zombie moans as he edges closer and closer; meanwhile a woman screams as she watches in horror.

While this scenario may seem like it’s from a typical zombie slasher flick, it is the opening sequence to “ParaNorman,” directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s delightfully charming 3-D stop motion animation film.

The movie follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old boy who can see and talk to dead people. While his town, Blithe Hollow, is celebrating its anniversary, Norman learns that the founder has left the citizens a curse: the seven people responsible for a witch’s (Jodelle Ferland) death 300 years ago are resurrected annually as zombies. Because Norman is the only one who can communicate with the dead, he is the only one who can resolve the issue.

Butler, who wrote as well as directed “ParaNorman,” pays homage to other films of its genre. In addition to borrowing the premise from M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” — a film about a young boy can see the dead — Butler pays tribute to other horror classics. The scene where a group of teens drives over a body on the side of the road resembles the plotline to “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Meanwhile, another scene features the “Halloween” theme as Norman’s ringtone, as well as Norman’s friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) dressed with “Friday the 13th’s” Jason Voorhes’s signature hockey mask.

Despite the ghostly subject matter, the scariest part of the film is grounded in real issues. Anyone can relate to being labeled and bullied as an outsider, or listening to parents arguing, or being ignored like Norman has. The film excels at exploring childhood insecurities and imparting didactic lessons without being too preachy. As Norman’s mom (Leslie Mann) tells him, “Some people say things that may seem mean, but they do it because they are afraid.”

Like the film “Coraline” — which Butler worked as the storyboard supervisor for, the stop motion animation of “ParaNorman” also succeeds at flowing seamlessly as piece of art. In one visually thrilling scene, Norman appears mentally disturbed while talking to invisible imaginary friends. The scene beautifully transitions into the subjective view through Norman’s eyes, revealing the ghosts surrounded by their magical ghostly green auras.

Although “ParaNorman” does many things well, some of the humor seems a bit excessive, especially when the jokes are built for cheap laughs. For example, in one scene, when Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) says the situation “is getting completely out of hand,” a zombie hand appears right in front of her. Although this may seem funny at first, if the same humor device is overused throughout the film, it ceases to be as funny because it borders on cheesy.

There are a few consistent gems though. Elaine Stritch, who voices Norman’s sassy dead grandma, has the funniest lines. In one scene when she is watching a zombie swallow brains on TV while knitting, she responds, “That’s not very nice. He’s going to ruin his appetite.”

Butler also pokes fun at stereotypes, using them as a source of humor and for comic effect. For instance, when Neil is looking to his other brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to set an example, he argues, “Mitch, you’re the oldest!”

Mitch, a stereotypically well-built, dumb jock often found lifting weights or exercising in his spare time, replies, “Not mentally!”

Butler successfully incorporates this same tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the film, as well as utilizes comedic timing, irony, and satire. For example, in once scene, a “Crime Prevention Ceremony” sign is used to commit an act of breaking in and entering. In another scene, a mob of humans hunts the band of flesh-eating zombies — turning modern convention upside-down.

Not only does “ParaNorman” provide a fresh portrayal to the horror genre — bringing both reality and magic to life — but the movie also proves that Butler has just the right amount of brains to do so.

“ParaNorman” was written by Chris Butler and directed by Butler and Sam Fell.

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